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Jerusalem Quartet delivers stirring performance of works by Haydn, Beethoven

By Xavier Otero

After a long absence — since early 2020 when the specter of pandemia intervened, forcing the cancellation of live performances worldwide — the Jerusalem Quartet performed at the Leo Rich Theater this past Wednesday, Oct. 27.

The faint plucking of strings, tuning up backstage, prompted a still the audience held, as they waited in reverence for this internationally acclaimed string quartet to take to the stage.

Once seated, first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky led the charge headlong into Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20 No. 5, considered to be among Haydn's most intense quartets due to its dark, brooding, and occasionally violent mood.

Esteemed British musicologist Sir Donald Tovey opined that it is “the most nearly tragic work Haydn ever wrote; its first movement being of astonishing depth of thought." The Jerusalem Quartet navigated the piece’s nuanced and well-articulated profundities with aplomb.

The work was composed in 1772, during a period in which Haydn was kapellmeister at Eszterháza. Dubbed the "Hungarian Versailles," the palace was beset by a "vexatious, penetrating north wind.” While ensconced in the prince’s court, Haydn suffered from bouts of depression and illness—conditions masterfully expressed in Opus 20 by the members of Jerusalem Quartet: Sergei Bresler (second violinist), Ori Kam (violist), Kyril Zlotnikov (cellist) and Pavlovsky.

Said to have defined the nature of the string quartet, the interplay between instruments in Haydn’s composition — that poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe likened to "four rational people conversing” — was personified.

Full of offbeat rhythms, entering the Minuetto, Jerusalem Quartet were in lockstep filling the theater with a frenetic gypsy air. One could envision elegantly draped dancers gracefully whirling at the court of Prince Esterházy.

Staying true to Haydn’s composition, the quartet expanded on a theme with beautiful lyricism during the Adagio.

Experimenting with asymmetrical phrases and syncopations, in Opus 20 Haydn gives each instrument its own voice.

Bresler’s strongly accented strokes carried the melody, as Pavlovsky’s contrapuntal lines weaved in and out, while Zlotnikov and Kam’s lower overlapping voices, terse and jagged, intertwined to drive the fugal Finale to a startling burst.

Setting a milestone, Haydn's quartets defined the medium for the next 200 years.

Next, communicating with glances and telepathy, the ensemble launched into Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108, without hesitation.

Shostakovich composed Opus 108, which premiered in Leningrad (1960), in memory of his late wife. Her sudden death, six years prior, after an emergency operation for cancer, deeply scarred Shostakovich.

While Pavlovsky established the motif, Bresler, Kam and Zlotnikov, attacking strings furiously with saw-like motions, followed with a series of nervous, rapid pulses, intended to gnaw at one’s consciousness, mirroring the composer’s pain and suffering, during the opening movement.

Bresler set the stage with a hypnotic four-note arpeggiation, during the Lento, seductively luring the listener into the mysterious, transitional borderland, between wakefulness and sleep, of hypnagogia, only to be woken aggressively by the fortissimo of the Allegro. Masterfully, conveying Shostakovich’s disturbing message of anguish and despair, with the ferocity of an attack dog, Jerusalem Quartet roistered, building tension to the point of becoming nearly unbearable only to lose force and dissipate like a hurricane at landfall. The crowd roared at its conclusion.

Returning after a short intermission the quartet commenced with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, no. 3.

Commissioned by Russian ambassador Andreas Razumovsky, Opus 59 is a product of Beethoven’s so-called middle period. Through a Herculean act of will, confronting the unimaginable, he transcended his hearing loss to emerge a hero.

As the quartet segued flawlessly from the slow, sombre, and dissonant Andante into the bright Allegro, the audience stood breathless. The quartet effortlessly maneuvered through the piece's crisp, rapidly flowing lines.

The second movement, the Andante, provided contrast. Pavlovsky’s delicate articulation and Zlotnikov’s pizzicato notes created an enchanting movement veiled with melancholy, apropos for the fall season when the darkness begins to override the light.

During the Minuetto, the ensemble moved from a poised elegance to creating nail-biting suspense. Alternating between sharp charges and soft jabs, Kam galloped, leading us on a veritable race for our lives, as the audience waited with bated breath for resolution.

In Opus 59, Beethoven created arguably one of the most extraordinary works of this period. In keeping with the nickname the opus has acquired, Eroica, the Jerusalem Quartet concluded this much-anticipated performance with a glorious, triumphant Finale.

November 1, 2021

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